Culture a key priority in five-year plan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 March, 2011, 12:00am


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Top leaders want to turn culture into a 'pillar industry' for the mainland by 2015.

As they see it, the world needs to know about Chinese culture, a development which will help boost the country's attractiveness, and capacity to use 'soft power' to increase its influence on the global stage.

Critics, however, fear the campaign will end up being a 'Great Leap Forward in culture', saying the spending is wastefully extravagant and will not bring the desired result.

The stated economic goals of the 12th five-year plan for 2011-15, approved at the National People's Congress session on March 14, include a massive expansion of the media, publishing, movie, animation, television series and performance sectors for export.

A pillar industry is loosely defined as one that contributes five per cent or more of the mainland's annual gross domestic product, a share which is predicted to be worth at least 2 trillion yuan (HK$2.37 trillion) in 2015. The government plans to invest 171 billion yuan this year in the culture, sports and media sectors, according to the Ministry of Finance.

Culture was not only 'the spirit and soul of the nation', but also a powerful force for the development of the country, according to a document containing suggestions for the five-year plan, approved at the Communist Party congress in October.

Authorities have come to realise the key role culture plays in developing the economy and boosting China's image abroad.

In the aftermath of the financial downturn in 2009, authorities identified the culture industry as a possible driver for adjusting the mainland's economic development in an effort to balance the pursuit of GDP growth with improving quality of life for ordinary citizens and protecting the environment.

The State Council approved the 'Plan to Adjust and Reinvigorate the Culture Industry' in September 2009, making it a national strategic industry.

Beijing sees developing so-called soft power, under which the nation is able to influence world affairs through persuasion and shared interest, as a crucial foil to its growing economic and military might, described as 'hard power'

China's status as the world's second-biggest economy means its hard power is already on the increase.

According to Professor Zhou Xing, of Beijing Normal University's College of Art and Communication, mainland leaders saw the culture industry as another way to achieve influence because outstanding cultural products containing commonly recognised values would appeal to audiences overseas and lead them to embrace China.

Professor Fan Zhou, dean of Communication University of China's Institute of Cultural Industry agreed, saying people's views of the world around them mainly derived from the messages conveyed through media such as radio, television and the movies.

'A distinctive culture would help disseminate a positive global image for China,' he said. 'Our cultural prominence has become a key and important indicator in terms of regional competitive power as we have increasingly opened up to the outside world.'

The culture industry has been expanding by 15-20 per cent annually since 2004, and revenues were expected to reach 1 trillion yuan last year, Sun Zhijun, deputy head of the central propaganda department, said last month.

The goal for the next five years is to raise the industry's percentage of the national GDP from about 2.5 per cent to 5 or 6 per cent, which means it will have to increase by more than 15 per cent each year, according to Professor Zhang Xiaoming, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' research centre for humanities.

'There is a huge potential for the cultural industry to develop,' he said.

New media could help drive the industry forward towards its goal, he said, backed by technological advances such as 3G and three-network integration - a convergence of television/radio broadcasting, the internet and telecommunication networks, and further exposure of state-owned enterprises to market forces.

With the number of mainland internet users expected to rise from 457 million to 750 million by 2015, according to McKinsey & Co's latest report, the consumption and demand for new media products, including music, books, games, movies and news, will also grow - a boost for the culture industry.

'Internet-backed digital publishing was another key area highlighted in the 12th five-year plan,' said Fan, adding that the value of the industry had risen to 75 billion yuan in 2009 from 20 billion in 2006, an average of about 56 per cent annually. The turnover from digital publishing surpassed that of the traditional print publishing in 2009 for the first time.

New media expansion will be backed by technological advances. Analysts generally agree that three-network convergence could bring 1 trillion yuan in investment to the information technology industry in the next three years.

'Convergence will create new derivatives and channels to enrich cultural products and consumption modes,' Fan said.

Other analysts, however, are hopeful but less optimistic about plans to boost the culture industry. They say further development will be hindered unless some key problems in the industry are addressed.

For one thing, it relies too much on government investment and financial support.

Financial investments in culture last year totalled 152.8 billion yuan, up an average of 22.2 per cent each year since 2006, according to official figures. So, during the 11th five-year plan, the total spent was more than 530 billion yuan.

What's more, according to Zhu Dake, a renowned cultural scholar and critic, 'there's a false idea that high investment results in a powerful industry.'

He cautioned against what he called a 'cultural Great Leap Forward', in which the government's intention to create a culture industry that is low-cost, highly productive and green resulted in some cultural and historical resources being wasted and destroyed.

Other critics pointed out that cultural products often failed to make profits, either because they weren't wanted by the market or creative ideas were lacking.

That is the other main area in which China must improve if it intends to boost its culture industry. Japan did it decades ago by coming up with cartoons such as Pokemon and Astro Boy, which combined with toys and other products to become a multibillion-dollar global industry.

Zhu said if China was going to produce creative works, smaller business should be encouraged rather than large conglomerates. 'Monopolies and large conglomerates can stem individual creative vitality,' he said.

Zhang agreed on the importance of empowering smaller businesses.

'We used to focus on forming and developing large cultural enterprises,' he said. 'The next step should be to focus on opening the market to smaller enterprises and encouraging individuals to start up their own businesses.'

Zhu also warned that apart from the economic side, a key measure of a thriving culture industry was freedom of creativity.

'Regulations and laws protecting cultural products exist in name only,' he said. 'The reason there have been so many pirated products is that many creative works are not protected by law.'

Zhang said the issue was linked to a basic liberty.

'Without freedom of expression and thought, there can be no original creations,' he said. 'It's unrealistic to achieve huge economic progress without forming a basic cultural system that is meant to protect creative rights for individuals.'

Culture vultures

The government has big plans to expand the culture industry in the 12th five-year plan

The government intends to pump this much, in yuan, into the culture, sports and media sectors this year: 171b yuan

Internet-backed digital publishing was worth this much, in yuan, in 2009, up from 20 billion yuan in 2006: 75b yuan

The industry will have to grow by at least this rate annually to become a 'pillar industry' by 2015: 15%

To meet its target of becoming a 'pillar industry', culture will have to be worth this much, in yuan, by 2015: 2tr yuan

Digital publishing will be key, with the mainland expected to have this many million internet users by 2015: 750